The End of Hungarian Democracy? International Implications

Friday, October 21, 2011
12:00 PM - 1:30 PM
CISAC Conference Room
  • Gabor Halmai,
  • Kim Lane Scheppele,
  • Jason Wittenberg,
  • Marton Dornbach

Co-sponsored by The Center for Russian, East European & Eurasian Studies and The Europe Center


Event Synopsis:

The End of Hungarian Democracy? International Implications
October 21, 2011

After an introduction by Professor Dornbach, Professor Wittenberg asserts that while a spirit of bipartisan ship is a nice feature of the U.S. legislature, it is not a fundamental requirement of democracy and  has historically not characterized the Hungarian parliament. He traces a decades-long tradition of ruling parties using Parliament to limit the presence and influence of minority parties. The current Fidesz government, which ended up with 2/3 of the seats after the 2012 election, now has a supermajority necessary to alter the constitution. Professor Wittenberg attributes Fidesz’s victory to three factors: the incompetence of older right wing parties, partly resulting from lack of governing experience during last four decades of Socialist rule; 2) the arrogance of the Socialist party; and 3) a simple lack of alternatives for voters. Wittenberg points out that Hungary’s complex electoral system resulted in more Fidesz parliamentary seats than the party’s actual popularity with voters would predict. He concludes that the 70% of parliamentary vote won, cumulatively, by extreme nationalist parties, does not bode well for the future of liberal politics in Hungary.

Professor Scheppele describes how the Fidesz party under the leadership of (Victor) Orban has taken its victory as a “mandate to change everything,” often in ways that will allow Fidesz to stay in power in the future. The constitution was amended 10 times during the party’s first year in power. Key changes included reducing the size and jurisdiction of constitutional courts, limiting media activities, allowing election commission representatives to be appointed with a 2/3 majority, and fast tracking the process of voting on new laws to approximately 3 days, leaving little room for discussion and debate. Scheppele echoes Professor Wittenberg’s argument that many voters simply did not have an attractive alternative to Fidesz, which would be less of a danger if the country’s constitution were not so easy to amend. She predicts that Hungary’s current situation should offer lessons to other countries on how to design constitutions.

Professor Halmai concludes the panel by crediting the arrogance (and corruption) of the Socialist coalition with the success of Fidesz in the 2010 elections. He highlights three central problems with the new constitution: 1) It leaves questions regarding who is to be subject to the constitution – for example, does this include the Roma population within Hungary, or Hungarian-Americans living within the United States? 2) The constitution intervenes in the private lives of Hungarians with respect to religion, marriage, abortion, etc. 3) It limits constitutional courts to narrower jurisdictions. He also laments the lack of consensus within the Hungarian government on a set of liberal democratic values.

A discussion session raised such questions as: What prospects are there for pushback from the European Union against some of the recent constraints on rule of law in Hungary? Does the fact that the Hungarian constitution considers the 1.4 million Hungarian-Americans in the United States as Hungarian citizens raise any legal challenge from the U.S.? Does the fact that Hungary has to operates within the frameworks of the European Union and NATO put constraints on its actions with regards to democracy and the constitution? Where does Fidesz’s funding come from?